This is my story of becoming the Imelda Marcos of minimal running shoes. I’ve been running for about a dozen years, mostly in Adidas Supernovas:
Over the last few years, I started to have increasing pain in my knees during and after a run. More and more often, I’d have to skip a day until my knees felt well enough to run again. Then, last summer, I was lucky enough to participate in a fantastic running seminar here in Denver, just at a time when my knee pain was getting so bad that I was ready to give up running. Karen and Peter at Running Well helped me fix my form and my knee pain has completely disappeared. Before, I was running upright, over-striding, and slamming my heel down with every step. Now I’m better at leaning forward a little (without bending at the waist), lifting my legs from my hips, landing under my hips and pushing off. I’m faster, and running is fun again!
My bulky, cushioned running shoes were not only not alleviating my knee pain, they were probably causing it by encouraging me to run with poor form. For more information on why most running shoes are evil, and for a damn good adventure story about running, read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. Human feet are supremely engineered machines that are made to touch the earth as we run. 25% of our bones are in our feet. If you’ve ever run barefoot, you know that your feet actually reach out and feel for the ground as they are landing. That feedback from the ground helps your feet, ankles, knees, legs and the rest of your body adjust to changing surfaces, slopes and speeds, and prevent injury.
As running shoes have become more and more cushioned over the last few decades, our feet have literally lost touch with the ground. Having half an inch of rubber under your feet makes them lazy and interrupts the feedback from the ground to your feet and to the rest of your body. Your running form deteriorates and you create impacts on your body that it wasn’t designed for. That’s the gist of the barefoot and minimal running movements.
I went shopping for “minimal” running shoes, ones that wouldn’t have too much cushioning, so my feet could commune with the ground. Minimal means different things to different people, but in general shoes that don’t have much of a toe-to-heel rise (2-3% at most) and don’t have excessive padding in the sole are considered minimal. I tried a few different shoes (the nice people at Boulder Running Company — all of seem to be runners – let you run around in the parking lot before you buy) and I ended up with New Balance MT101′s: which are super light trail running shoes (I run on gravel, trails, asphalt and some concrete paths in them). I love these shoes. They’re very light, they’re thin enough to feel the ground, they have almost no toe-to-heel rise, and the rock plate in the sole keeps my feet from being impaled on sharp rocks.
The only time I don’t like these shoes is when I run on concrete. The almost complete lack of padding means I can feel the shock through my whole body. Most likely, I need to tune my form further for lighter landings. As an aside, there’s a useful exercise you can do to see how much you’re bouncing around: rather than looking at the ground about 8-10 ft in front of you, look at a tree or building ahead of you and see how much it bounces up and down in relation to the horizon. If you’re running light and easy, it shouldn’t bounce very much at all.
So I went shopping for light, neutral shoes with a little more padding, for concrete and races on asphalt. Neutral shoes have a very low (or no) profile, no rise from toe to heel — your foot is level in a neutral shoe, just as it is on the ground. Neutral shoes aren’t necessarily minimal, but minimal shoes are often neutral or low-profile. I ended with a pair of Newton Distance Racers, which have the extra geek bonus of having Sir Isaac on the insole:
I was very excited to have a shoe that was neutral, light and still provided some padding for running on concrete. On some test runs, I felt like I was running softer on concrete, there was less pounding, but the horizon test proved that I was actually bouncing more. After a couple of test runs, however, I felt like I was losing my form again. Neutral they may be, but perhaps my Newtons are too cushy? I’m still trying to figure that one out, I’ll try them a few more times on concrete, but I was disappointed that they were not a panacea. And it was always possible that my form just wasn’t good enough yet, that I hadn’t completely reverted to running how we were meant to run before running shoes were invented. So I dug out my Vibram FiveFingers, which I’d bought a few months ago but never used for more than walking:
Vibram recommends getting used to the FiveFingers slowly, but I took them for a 3-mile run. It was wonderful to feel the gravel and dirt paths under my feet, like a foot massage. My calves were a little sore, because the FiveFingers are completely neutral, no heel at all, but I’m sure I’ll get used to them. I wish you could buy a pair of FiveFingers in two different sizes, the right one is a little too snug across the top of my foot. I now have my eye on the Bikila LS, which has “a closed speed lace system to accommodate a wider foot or higher instep”:
My favorites are still the MT101′s, but I’m going to give the Newtons another chance and if I get some Bikila LS’es I’ll update this post with my findings.
Happy Running, and remember .. don’t spoil your feet, they’ll hate you for it.
UPDATE (July 2011):
I’ve started running in the New Balance MT10 Minimus Trail shoes:
This shoe has a Vibram sole, but no rock plate. The shoe is super light and comfortable, and gives you almost the same feel of the ground as the FiveFingers, but occasionally you really notice the absence of the rock plate, ouch.